Better To Have Loved: The Life Of Judith Merril by Judith Merril and Emily Pohl-Weary (book review).

I pulled ‘Better To Have Loved: The Life Of Judith Merril’ by Judith Merril and Emily Pohl-Weary many years ago, noting she was the most well-known female writer amongst The Futurians, although its pointed out in the text there were three others, later becoming editor at ‘The Magazine Of Fantasy And Science Fiction’ and many anthologies, including the ‘Best Of SF’ series.

I should also point out that Emily Pohl-Weary is one of her grand-daughters and, as she explains in the introduction, her grandmother had intended to do her autobiography but never got around to it. She goes over her papers and such and puts it in Judith Merril first person so this will be the closest you’ll get to her own memoirs.

Judith Josephine Grossman aka Judith Merril (1923-1997), taking the pen-name in 1945 was certainly a radical thinker and had been urged to be a writer by her mother. Her pen-name wasn’t her devising but that of Ted Sturgeon using her daughter’s name as her surname. This also gets confusing from time to time when she refers to her daughter in letters although occasionally shortens it to ‘Merry’. Sturgeon was also a nudist which should make you wonder what he wore when he wrote his own stories.

What is so useful about this book is that Merril was in contact with all the Golden Age SF authors and there is a lot of letters covered in this book, providing a lot of insight into them. I didn’t really know much about Virginia Kidd, who later became James Blish’s wife but was also a writer, editor and agent.

The main reason you don’t see much of her writing, even under her pen-name and others is she also did collaborations. Two novels with Cyril Kornbluth under the name of ‘Cyril Judd’. That should have you scurrying around for ‘Outpost Mars’ and ‘Gunner Kade’ for copies as they are still out there and been reprinted a few times. Make sure you spell her surname right when googling for her books because they are out there, although some are awfully expensive.

I like Merril’s analysis of how ‘writers get their crazy ideas from’ in chapter 14 based off maths but applied to what is going on in the world. I think in our genre, its just our quirky nature of addressing different solutions to problems and go metaphor. She does make a very good point that when you make the transition from writer to editor, any writer friends tend to seen you as the enemy and I doubt if that’s changed much today. When you consider that good editors are the hidden collaborator ensuring the product works, it does illustrate the boss/employee ethic also affects writing and friendships and editors tend to step down if they want a writing career. Don’t ask how I straddle both sides but I find it useful that I can speak both languages.

Merril’s time in the UK in the 1970s brings up her thoughts with not understanding our mindset when trying to get things done. Michael Moorcock and Hilary Bailey explained to her to use an apology to get willing help. I’m less inclined to think that helps much today although I tend to be polite and be a little funny with all but cold callers when I can be a little barbed or confuse them.

If there is some weaknesses in this book then its less about her professional life than her activities around her writing and editing career. Merril does admit she lost her mojo for writing stories although wrote many articles. It isn’t until the first appendix that you find out she wrote 5 novels, two of which were co-written with Kornbluth, which became half of another double book. I’ve ordered up 4 of them, so expect some reviews at some point, if for no other reason than to spur interest, especially as one was called ‘The Tomorrow People’ which predates the ITV TV series by a decade.

Getting hold of the anthology ‘The Best Of Judith Merril’ might be more problematic but she certainly wrote more in the short form. I should point out that it appears there are plenty of copies of this book out there and it gives some insight into American life in the 1950s-70s and why she ended up in Canada. Certainly, Merril was a reactionary and played around with various political regimes, as indeed did several of The Futurians and other writers at the time. I’m not going to go into debate on that as it’s a different era and much of these choices were idealised and were appalled, as was Merril, of how they were applied in Russia.

It’s worth a read and see how much she must have inspired later female SF authors.

GF Willmetts

April 2022

(pub: Between The Lines, 2002. 282 page illustrated indexed medium softcover. Price: I pulled my copy for around £13.00 (UK). ISBN: 978-1-896357-67-1)

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